Column #2, posted 3/17/99

Why Do We Have to Learn This?

Education is everybody's top priority all of a sudden. Must be an election coming soon. My two favorite solutions of the imminent silly political season are changes in class size and more music in the curriculum--because musical instruction somehow raises math scores. The lunatics are running the asylum as usual.

Let's start with music to raise math scores since it is less subtle than the other issue. The studies that are cited from time to time note that children's math scores go up if they are learning about music. There is an alternate version of this that says that classical music played daily causes students to be able to pay attention better in class. This latter version actually caused the state of Florida to mandate half an hour or so of classical music listening each day.

I am not concerned with the generally bad science here. When you pay attention to students that tends to be a good thing, and when you calm them down that is also good. No one was running control groups to see if marijuana calmed them down even better than music I assume. Classical music is safe and respected and we generally like the idea that music somehow is good for something after all. But, there are three real problems here.

The first is that there is going to be a quick fix to education. Somehow we hope to find the magic bullet that once administered will make everyone behave and do what they are supposed to do. Ritalin is a favorite these days. If we just dope up all the kids, then won't school be that much better? The obvious idea that kids are jumping out of their chairs because they have interests and ideas of their own and are bored to death with the ones being shoved down their throats in school, seems lost. They are kids after all. Maybe they don't like sitting still for hours. We simply don't want to confront the idea that we are boring the children, so we figure music or drugs will make it all better.

The second problem is the idea that we need to make kids learn stuff because it is good for something. Music education isn't okay for its own sake under this view. We can only imagine teaching music because it helps something else that we have deemed to be far more important. The idea that the school system knows what is important and right for kids to learn is getting worse and worse, thanks in part to E. D. Hirsch who has compiled a list of stuff that kids must know to satisfy him. So, when your kid is memorizing an Eskimo folk tale for reasons that may seem obscure, there is a good chance that his school is listening to E. D. Hirsch, who has determined in his infinite wisdom what is important for your kid to know.

This leads to the third problem--my favorite and the one no one questions--that what really matters for kids to know is mathematics. Really? And why would that be? Because math scores are down and we need to get them up because the Koreans and the Lithuanians are beating us and we all know how important this is to national survival. I haven't quite figured out what better math scores is doing for those countries but I have figured out how much mathematics matters and that is NOT AT ALL.

Since this is such a sacred cow and probably everyone who is reading this is now sure I have fallen off the deep end let me first assure you that my major in college was mathematics. I like the subject. But, music so we can learn math? Why not math so we can learn music? What is it with this national obsession with mathematics? When was the last time politicians took a logarithm or factored an equation? Hardly an adult in this country can do mathematics but we are all desperate that our children do it. Why? Because we want to torture them? Math is fine, but so are many others subjects, too. Why is one fifth of the school day concerned with mathematics for twelve years of school? Why is half of every standardized test on mathematics?

It is not easy to answer these questions because mathematics (here I mean geometry, algebra, trigonometry, and calculus, not arithmetic) is so useless on the face of it. Hardly anyone will ever use this stuff but everyone seems to believe that without math our education system will rot. Perhaps the answer is that we love objective tests and math is so damned objective. Or perhaps it is just that we like to measure and math is easy to measure. Or perhaps it is just that we like the tutoring model of education which says that when students aren't doing so well we can help them by giving them more tutoring. Or, most likely it is because we all suffered with mathematics and the cognitive dissonance of just eliminating it from the curriculum is too much for everyone to bear.

Of course mathematics is useful sometimes. I am in favor of teaching it when it is needed. So, if you are trying to build a bridge, then it would be good to know mathematics, but must we teach it to everyone who will never build a bridge as well? Well of course we must because we seem to have the idea that we must teach everyone all the same stuff. And why is that?

I don't know the answer to that one but I know that it relates to the issue of smaller class size. Of course making class size smaller would be better. How could it make things worse? And what are the arguments against it? It's too expensive. Halving the class size means doubling the budget. No way that will ever happen. This is also why we teach everyone the same stuff--because we think that if we didn't it would be too expensive. Look at all the different teachers we would have to hire, and all the new books we would have to buy, and all the new classrooms we would have to build. So, the real answer to why we teach mathematics is that it would be too expensive to stop this habit. Too many vested interests already in place. The fact that people seem to resist mathematics means not that we eliminate it, because that would cost too much, but that we decide to work harder at it, which is cheaper. The fact is that no really important changes can be made in education because they would all be too costly. Politicians may like education as a political issue but they really hate spending a lot of money on education as a political issue.

This attitude has to stop. When someone finally decides to spend some actual money on education, I suggest that the first priority is not to make class sizes smaller so that we can more effectively drum mathematics into the heads of Ritalin doped kids. I suggest someone spend some money to think about what we should be teaching students to prepare them to live in the real world, not in some world where we are all doing quadratic equations on a daily basis.

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